This series is in the vein of several other series or articles where authors discuss the psychological profile or diagnosis of fictional characters, but taken a step further to talk about how I would actually go about psychotherapy with this character. My goal with this series is to show the variety of options in the world of psychotherapy – there really is something for everyone! Also to show some of the thinking that goes into psychological treatment – the theory, the research, and the adaptations that skillful therapists make to complex cases.
As always my disclaimer applies here, and be warned of spoilers ahead.
Shinji’s Case Conceptualization
This poor kid.
I first watched Neon Genesis Evangelion when I was 16 – just a few years older than Shinji – and I hated him as a character. Here is a kid who wines non-stop, even though he pilots a giant robot to save the world, lives with a smoking hot secret agent-type woman, and has two girls his own age continuously dropping suggestive hints while dressed like this:
I just rewatched the show since its re-release on Netflix. On a second viewing I kept thinking that if Gendo Ikari and the folks at NERV had wanted to intentionally give Shinji a mental breakdown, this would be a good way to go about it. It reminded me of Elsa’s parents approach to her powers in Frozen. Parenting tip: take everything these folks did, and do the opposite.
Shinji is introduced as shy, underconfident, passive and bumbling. For reasons that he is never told, he is the only one who can pilot a terrifying robot monster to fight giant aliens that are trying to destroy the world. He claims – rightfully – that he can’t handle this responsibility. He tries to quit over and over, only to be drawn back into the fight when there is literally no one else who can save the world.
Imagine that for a moment. Think about the last time you were too tired to work or do chores, and imagine that if you decided to call in sick to work that the world would end. Imagine being suicidally depressed, but knowing that if you killed yourself you’d also be killing everyone else in the entire world. Each fight is physically excruciating and Shinji and his whole support team seem to be flying by the seat of their pants. And let’s talk about his family dynamic! For starters, here’s a picture of his mom:
Shinji’s father is an emotionally abusive, narcissistic asshole. The best thing he does is stay mostly out of Shinji’s life, leaving him in the care of the aforementioned super-hot military officer. Shinji spends a few episodes charging up crazy amounts of erotic energy when Asuka, the redhead above, also moves in with him. She pulls some classic borderline approach/withdrawal behaviors, flirting and abusing in the same breath. Later it turns out a girl that he’s been crushing on is a clone of his mother, and he has to kill a boy that he has a crush on because he’s an angel and… Suffice to say that he’s a mess.
Shinji’s Treatment Plan
Apparently the showrunner, Hideaki Anno, suffered from serious depression throughout the show, and he infused a lot of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic theory into the show. This manifests a few ways: the three Eva pilots – Asuka, Shinji and Rei – are an example of a Freudian trio, representing the id, ego and superego, respectively. More pertinently, you can see this in the Freudian family dynamics, where Shinji is forced to suppress his lust for two mother figures – his guardian Misato, and his mother’s clone, Rei.
So maybe Freudian problems call for Freudian solutions! There are still quite a few Freudian and Neofreudian practitioners out there. I am not one of them. Mostly, Freud’s therapy has evolved into the psychodynamic branch of psychotherapy, and there are a lot of psychodynamic therapists out there. I’m not one of those either.
What I can practice is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), which some argue is a type of psychodynamic treatment. It’s not all that different from the type of treatment I recommended for Rick Sanchez, although for very different reasons. This might actually be a good choice for Shinji. IPT focuses on an individual’s relationships with others, theorizing that mental illness – particularly depression – stems from a lack of healthy attachments and relationships with others, combined with a significant stressor. The show goes out of its way to show that Shinji’s attachment to others is key to his wellbeing, for better or for worse.
I still wouldn’t probably start with IPT though, because the truth is that I don’t really think that Shinji’s problems are just Shinji’s.
Structural Family Therapy
I spent one year of my career working with kids and adolescents, and honestly that was enough for me. Still, that was plenty of time for me to see all of my good clinical work didn’t stand a chance against parents working against me. That’s not to say that parents ever set out to do their kids harm. Rather, over the years of being a family bad habits and bad dynamics get set into place that reinforce the mental illness. Usually the kid I would see, or Shinji in this case, is what we called an Identified Patient (IP), or the member of the family who manifested the dysfunctional family dynamics as symptoms.
In contrast to my vast repertoire of individual and group therapy methodologies, I have pretty minimal knowledge of family therapy. What I do have is an enormous amount of respect for Salvador Minuchin, the founder of structural family therapy. To me, Minuchin is one of those therapists, like Marsha Linehan or Irving Yalom, who seems to understand the psychology of others and the process of psychotherapy on an incredible, almost preternatural level.
Unlike in individual therapy, in structural family therapy the therapist actually becomes part of the family system, participating in family interactions and even taking sides with certain family members. This is done intentionally to disrupt some of the existing unhealthy family dynamics.
If I’m being honest, my very first impulse would be to just get Shinji straight out of that environment.
Misato’s sloppiness and emotional immaturity forces Shinji to take responsibility for the upkeep of the house, mirroring the responsibility he is forced to take on for the world. With all of the responsibility comes all of the blame, so he becomes the scapegoat for all of the family unit’s problems. Add to this the constant influx of erotic energy that Shinji gets from living with these two unrelated and yet unavailable women, and he’s a mess. Surely, I think, there must be some kind family in Tokyo-2 who is willing to foster the savior of all humanity!
The cultural dimension would be very important here as well. The household really has 2-3 different cultures – Misato and Shinji are Japanese, Asuka was raised in Germany, and they all operate in a paramilitary organization that has a culture all its own. There was a portion of an episode devoted to Asuka’s difficulty adapting to some Japanese cultural norms, but these are never really resolved.
Most of all, everyone needs to learn how to be emotionally intimate without becoming physically intimate. I mentioned Asuka’s proto-Borderline traits earlier, and maturing in a family where no one has any idea how to validate each other is a huge risk factor for personality disorder development. There are times during this show that I wanted to scream at each of the characters to just cut these kids some slack. But everyone’s so erotically charged that any attempt at validation ends up like this:
Still, Shinji’s relationship with Misato is perhaps the most wholesome in the entire show, and I wouldn’t take that away from him. My job then would probably actually be focused on supporting Misato. She needs to more firmly establish her role as head of the household, rather than fobbing domestic management off on Shinji and neglecting her duty to manage the relationship between her two foster children. She and I could work together on establishing healthy boundaries and patterns of communication between herself, Shinji and Asuka.
Ultimately, maybe we could even work towards reunifying Shinji with his biological parents.